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Livingstone's 'nonsense' touched raw Zionist nerve

Ken Livingstone
The former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone.

A correspondent for Israel's Haaretz newspaper has said that Ken Livingstone's "nonsense" comments last week have touched a "raw Zionist nerve", and pointed out that the Haavara ("Transfer") Agreement between German Zionists and the Nazis "split the Zionist movement in the 1930s." Chemi Shalev described the agreement as an "explosive dilemma" to save German Jews.

In an article published on 1 May, Shalev claimed that Livingstone "has a long history of anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic remarks." As evidence, he said that has called Israel "racist, accused it of ethnic cleansing, called for its leaders to be put on trial for crimes against humanity"; in citing such examples, Shalev has basically labelled most critics of Israel's decades-long occupation of Palestine as "anti-Semitic", for such accusations are not limited to Livingstone alone.

More specifically, though, the Haaretz journalist noted that the former London mayor "once said that Likud and Hamas are two sides of the same coin… likened a Jewish reporter to a concentration camp guard, compared British Jews who enlist in the Israeli army to British Muslims who join terrorist groups and opined that Jews wouldn't vote for Labour 'because they were rich.'"

As far as Shalev is concerned, Livingstone's claim that "Hitler supported Zionism" is "a ridiculous statement." Hitler wasn't a Zionist, insists Shalev, but he did give his passive and sometimes active support to the limited collaboration between the Zionist movement and the Nazi regime throughout the 1930s. "It was Adolf Eichmann, in fact, who once reportedly declared, 'I am a Zionist.' He didn't mean that he supported the Jewish people's right to self-determination or safe refuge, only that Zionism provided an efficient way of getting rid of Jews before more drastic measures were conceived."

Despite dismissing Livingstone's source material as the stuff of "anti-Zionists, Holocaust deniers and Nazi sympathisers" – thus linking all three and implying that genuine criticism of Israel is therefore the work of a dangerous fringe – Shalev does admit that Livingstone's comments have thrown the spotlight "on a chapter in history that most Zionists would rather leave untouched: their limited shared interests and consequent ad hoc cooperation with the Nazi regime." This, he explained, "lasted for about seven years, from 1933 until 1940, when the international blockade prevented further emigration of Jews from Germany, just before Hitler gave the order to annihilate the Jews instead."

The Haavara Agreement was signed in 1933 by the "powerful" Nazis and the "rather desperate pre-state Zionists." It was, he said, "a deal negotiated by German Zionists by which some Jews would be able to sell their properties in Germany in exchange for funds that would allow them to buy property in then-Palestine." In return, the Zionists would not take part in the international boycott declared by World Jewry against Germany "and would try to persuade Jewish leaders to revoke it."

The Haavara Agreement has been said to have saved "about 60,000 Jews, mostly well-educated but mainly well to do" who went to Palestine "and were saved from extermination" in the subsequent death camps of the Nazi Holocaust. Shalev pointed out that the wealth that the German Jews took to Palestine — which was already wracked by anti-immigration riots by a Palestinian community seeing their land being taken over by Jews in ever greater numbers — "injected £8 million, close to a billion dollars in today's terms, directly into the Palestinian economy and another six million pounds indirectly." The German Jews "were part of the Fifth Aliyah [migratory wave] that significantly strengthened the struggling Yishuv [pre-state settler community] with their talents and knowhow." The Haaretz writer's own mother, "of blessed memory, was the beneficiary of a similar agreement signed in Czechoslovakia after the Nazis took over, which allowed students to emigrate." The Haavara Agreement, it seems, was not a one-off example of Nazi-Zionist collaboration.

Zionism's founding claim was that it is impossible for Jews to assimilate in Europe, which is why Theodor Herzl approached the most anti-Semitic of European countries with his plan for the "Jewish State"; he saw common benefit in the removal of Europe's Jews to found the state of Israel. Shalev said that it cannot be denied that "a few Zionists saw the rise of a racialist Nazi regime in the early 1930s as confirmation" of this "ideological claim". Some "revisionists" actually "admired Hitler and Mussolini's fascism" although "their leader Vladimir Jabotinsky" shut this train of thought down, as did the rising anti-Jewish pogroms by the Nazis after 1933. "Most Zionists had no illusions about the odious nature of Hitler and the Nazis, but they sharply disagreed about the way they should react to it: the Transfer Agreement was a deal with the devil by all accounts, but the question was whether it was a necessary evil or a mortal sin."

Shalev claimed that it is this dispute "that shaped Zionist politics for a half a century and in some ways continues to serve as its backdrop to this very day." One of the "champions" of "dialogue with the Nazis was murdered on the beach in Tel Aviv." The Zionist leadership in Palestine, including David Ben Gurion (who became Israel's first prime minister in 1948) believed that "militant Revisionists" carried out the crime. "Three members of a right wing splinter group were indicted for the crime but later acquitted by the courts. Among the Revisionist sympathisers who sought to rebuff what they described as the 'blood libel' perpetrated by Labour Zionists were Benjamin Netanyahu's father, Benzion, as well as his grandfather, Nathan Milikovsky."

Ben Gurion and other Zionist leaders in Palestine, wrote Shalev, "kept their distance" from the Haavara Agreement, "especially as public opinion seemed to oppose the deal" until 1935, when "Nazi pressures, increasingly desperate appeals by German Zionists as well as their own recognition of the critical importance of the deal" overcame their reticence. The deal's discussion and ratification at the 19th Zionist Congress in Lucerne in 1935, "marked the final split between Labour Zionism and the Revisionists, who accused the leadership of the Yishuv, much like Livingstone, of being 'Hitler's allies'."

Although Hitler didn't block the Haavara deal, said Shalev, historians have been unable to trace his personal response to it. "In 1937," however, "he personally intervened in order to keep it going and did so for the next two years as well." As the journalist notes, that does not make Hitler into a supporter of Zionism by any stretch of the imagination, "as Livingstone annoyingly claims", not least because the Nazi leader wiped out millions of Jews, including millions of potential Zionists, who would have changed the arc of Jewish history completely. "As for the Zionists themselves, all that can be said is that it was a desperate time that required desperate measures that are still difficult to judge today, even with the benefit of 80 years of hindsight."

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